A word on decentralisation
There’s been a lot of talk from a lot of people (myself included) about how the disruption caused by COVID-19 present us with a window of opportunity to design things differently and do things better. There are many improvements I believe we can and should make, but I just want to briefly focus on decentralisation.
In the UK, our political system is highly centralised, with power concentrated in Westminster. COVID-19 has laid bare many of the weaknesses of this structure. There has been much written in the press about “ministers, presumably egged on by their advisers, grandly issuing their edicts, only for people to insist that they simply do not match the reality on the ground.” We have already begun to witness Local Councils rebelling against central government orders. 18 Local Authorities defied the Government’s plans to reopen primary schools on 1 June. My local Councils of Newcastle and Gateshead refused to follow the Government’s messaging switch from “Stay home” to “Stay alert” given the North East had the highest infection rates in the country at the time. Through all of this, there runs a consistent thread that power needs to be taken from the centre and dispersed.
There’s also an increasing amount of anxiety that the window may be closing and we might miss the opportunity to remake the system. There’s a lot of fear of things ‘snapping back,’ of old powers and hierarchies reasserting themselves, of the ‘trust-based’ approaches that have been employed to help us through this crisis being re-smothered under a blanket of control.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I just want to offer a few words of hope. The first is that while we will see some things ‘snap back’, that doesn’t mean the window of opportunity has closed. The last two months notwithstanding, change tends to happen slowly and we are still all trying to process what this time of COVID has taught us. The window of opportunity is wider than we think, and does not close when things ‘snap back.’ The second, and probably more significant, is that this experience has fundamentally changed people. Where before, people in organisations were used to having to ask ‘decision-makers’ before doing even the smallest thing, they have now had two months of ‘radical autonomy’ – of being actively encouraged to be entrepreneurial and use their own judgement to solve problems. And this has had a profoundly positive effect on people, both in terms of effectiveness and in terms of their own motivation. At the grassroots, decision-making has already been radically decentralised. Now so many people have had a taste of this more human way of doing things, they’re not going to go back. They have changed – so now we have to help their organisations and systems catch up.
If you’d like to hear more about how ‘Hope is elephant fuel’ or why ‘Autonomy is a matter of life and death’, then why not check out our podcast: The Assist?
This article was first published on the Lankelly Chase Medium blog